We are unquestionably in a global golden age for binge-worthy episodic crime television, ranging from true crime shows such as Making a Murderer based in my home state of Wisconsin, to Narcos based in Colombia and Mexico, to multiple seasons of well produced US crime fiction like Breaking Bad and True Detective.
Terrifyingly fitting then that modern India, like Mexico today too uncomfortably close a backdrop to the lawless 1850s Wild West, has arrived on the global scene to add new and unique depth to the crime genre. For other examples, please read my reviews of Netflix’s true-story Delhi Crime and Amazon Prime’s fictional Paatal Lok. Until I finally watched both gruesome seasons of Mirzapur this year, those were the gold standards in my mind of the devastating potential of Indian crime TV.
But Amazon’s Mirzapur shattered both my sensibilities and my sense of what comprises the best Indian television or film I have ever seen. It gave me nightmares. Mirzapur creates a largely credible world in a fictional region of Uttar Pradesh that is gut-wrenchingly bloody and violent, tragic, sad, corrupt, dirty, and poverty stricken. Which unfortunately isn’t too distant from the reality of modern rural North India for too many people. Season 1 was released in 2018, and Season 2 was released recently in 2020, both are on Amazon Prime, and if you like this genre then you MUST watch them ASAP regardless of where you live in the world. It’s just that good.
Season 1, Episode 1 of Mirzapur is one of the best episodes of TV I have ever seen, period. In fact I could not wait to watch it over again a second and third time. The story unfolds immediately and demands your undivided attention, presenting a wide array of highly interesting characters, moral conundrums, and a gushing waterfall of red blood. In a nutshell it presents how in India familial bonds, politics, law, policing, business, and organized crime are all merged into one giant ball of utter hopelessness, and the characters are forced to harness their inner demons for survival in this unforgiving landscape. For in this highly cynical game, the “good guys” are gangsters, the “bad guys” are gangsters, the cops are gangsters, the politicians are gangsters, commerce is just organized crime, there are zero good options, and any attempt to stake a moral high ground is violently beaten out of you in a cesspool of Indian realism. Ask any Indian and they will tell you that this is just how it all really is, and always has been.
The central characters are portrayed very convincingly by A-list Indian actors most of whom I’ve never seen before, led by a menacing and handsome Pankaj Tripathi who plays the lead don of the show, wickedly on point every single moment as he sits on his throne, calmly wreaking havoc throughout North India with his poker face and relaxed posture. Finally as of the last few years these Indian guys are acting as well as any actors in the world instead of dancing around to unlistenable escapist love songs on screen. The central antagonists are the Tripathi crime family, led by three twisted generations of men perched in their elaborate, decadent palace paid for by drugs, bribery, extortion, illegal gun running, assassinations, and whatever else that is evil in this world you could think of. The plot unfolds with the scion of this family, a drunk and high college-age Munna (Divyendu Sharma), son of Akhandanand (portrayed by Pankaj Tripathi) accidentally killing the horse-riding groom at a random Hindu wedding in town as he wantonly shot his pistol into the air out of frustration that the wedding party was temporarily blocking the road he was driving his jeep on. Sharma acts a phenomenal villain as well, in a show with many delicious villains and even those who shape-shift constantly between villain and hero without moral judgment.
Strictly by chance, this princeling’s remorseless action grinds the Tripathi family up against the middle-class Pandit family, led by a father figure who is an upright lawyer to the common man, angling to take up the wedding murder case in court despite severe risk to personal and family safety. What follows is the first of dozens of violent confrontations involving these two families over two seasons, possibly more- a truly epic rivalry is born- and a shocking end to the episode involving the attorney’s two college-age sons Guddu Bhaiyya (Ali Fazal) and Bablu (Vikrant Massey), university-mates of Munna, that I definitely did NOT see coming. This non-traditional plot twist is so exquisite, that I could not stop watching from there on out.
Not to be outdone, the rival gangs and cops are equally fierce and terrifying in how they comport themselves with gore and glee. Peppered throughout the two seasons are an array of lower class two-bit thugs and hoodlums who make up the small armies of the main characters, who loyally follow their masters with guns ablaze, both short and long. Appropriately so for a country with 5,000 years of feudal history. Guns are front and center in every single scene like a contemporary Indian version of the OK Corral, a jarring contrast to how India used to be just earlier this century. The women of the show have full agency, unlike, say, The Sopranos where they just cook pasta and shop all day. The kids have guns, the wives and maids and daughters have guns, the lawyers have guns, and this doesn’t even approach the main characters in organized crime and police. Besides lots of shooting you will also get to see people slapped around, tied up, bludgeoned, stabbed, cut, burnt alive and any other manner of rampage one can imagine, much of it to innocent bystanders. Nearly all of which is in the service of retaining power, where the dynamics are shifting every single second. There is never a moment of peace, calm, or stasis. The dire conflicts play out in every single scene for 20 episodes. And somehow in the middle of it all, the characters find love too.
The part that has intrigued me the most about Mirzapur is how the single-minded violence is used in the application of power in an engaging blend of brain and brawn. It is unrelentingly tense, deliciously so. It favorably reminded me at many junctures of Game of Thrones- because there are deeper meanings to the world beyond just the gore and death itself, with intelligent political scheming behind the muscle. Loyalty, family, romance, friendship, enmity, alliances of convenience, and governance (or lack thereof) are all brilliantly portrayed in this rich world.
But by consequence, the hard focus on violence as the unrivaled central theme is the part that has turned off some other critics, who opine that the single-minded and endless stream of encounters are tiring. I would respond that Mirzapur is undoubtedly revenge porn in purest form, but done realistically and tastefully, without glorifying the violence with moral superiority and special effects stunts, as Bollywood has been doing for the last six decades plus.
Mirzapur is that rare combination of superior writing, acting, production technology, and plot all contributing to keep you hooked. Go ahead and throw in a bunch of good looking men and women- and realIy weird looking ones too. I hope you give it a try- if all of this might be your thing. Mirzapur cemented in my mind that Indian crime TV offers many interesting facets that no other country could do. Especially because in India, bonds of family and friend can be so much closer compared to anywhere else- and therefore also that much more deadly.
I hope and pray, with fear, for a Season 3 to come out. There are some untied loose ends for sure.
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor
Special thanks to Varun Pai, for recommending this show and participating in a Season 2 marathon over Thanksgiving weekend with a side of grilled “Spatchcock” turkey.
TRAILER FOR SEASON 1: